BY GREG SHERIDAN
July 13, 2017
The NSW Labor Party, under the shameful influence of its once great right-wing faction, is about to pass a resolution on the Middle East that is a disgrace in principle, is semi-publicly but earnestly opposed by Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek, Richard Marles and Penny Wong, and will be an embarrassment to the Labor Party.
Former leader Kim Beazley describes it as gesture politics unrelated to the real world. The resolution reflects a kind of sectarian nastiness and regression in the party’s internal culture.
Oh, and one more thing. It will make it that bit harder for Labor to win the next federal election.
The resolution will call on the next Labor government to unconditionally and immediately extend diplomatic recognition to the state of Palestine. The sponsors want it to become national Labor policy at a federal conference next year.
It would replace the 2015 national resolution, which supports the two-state solution and calls on the Israeli government to halt building settlements in the West Bank, but also calls for a negotiated agreement between the two parties.
That resolution acknowledges Israel’s right to exist within secure borders and the Palestinians’ legitimate aspiration to nationhood. The existing resolution says if there is no progress a future Labor government could discuss with like-minded nations possible future recognition of a Palestinian state, if that contributes to the peace process.
The last part is ill advised because it encourages the Palestinian leadership to believe it can get a state without having to compromise on those of its demands that are unreasonable and impossible to implement. Nonetheless it is a balanced policy that a self-respecting social democratic party can defend.
The proposed unilateral and unconditional recognition of a Palestinian state, on the other hand, can really emanate only from an unbalanced hostility to Israel or an ignorance of the circumstances on the ground. Either way, the support by the NSW right for this demonstrates the complete death of its old culture of decency and strategic responsibility.
Once the NSW right was the best strand in Australian political culture, the guardian of Labor’s strategic common sense, its connection with the values of ordinary Australians. Now it looks like a self-seeking machine prepared to cave in on any principle to avoid a fight. Numerous NSW unions know this is a dud resolution but won’t fight.
Typically, former Labor ministers become less reliable guides to good policy the further away they are from holding office. Beazley, who until five minutes ago was ambassador to the US, is by a long distance the most authoritative Labor figure on strategic issues and the Middle East.
His assessment of the NSW resolution? “It has the status of a gesture without merit in reality. The issue of diplomatic recognition is a serious international legal business. There’s a recognised set of criteria that bring about diplomatic recognition. These are that a state has recognised boundaries, a clear-cut government and control of the affairs of state. On any of those criteria Palestine does not meet it. Its borders are not settled. It is not in control of the affairs of state. And it has two governments (one in Gaza, one in the West Bank).
“Labor is totally committed to a two-state solution. If from time to time we find that settlement policy is undermining that, or that one side or the other is not being sincere, we should say so. But the idea for this resolution is gesture politics and it is simply not helpful.”
Beazley also tells me that for a two-state solution to take shape, demands have to be made of both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The NSW resolution is, of course, entirely one-sided. It is born out prejudice and baked in ignorance. Almost nothing said in its defence is true.
Last week I had lunch with Dennis Ross, who was the Middle East co-ordinator for Bill Clinton and then a senior adviser on the Middle East for Barack Obama. It would be pretty hard to call him a neocon or a Likudnik or a supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Ross told me he strongly opposed gestures such as the unconditional recognition of a Palestinian state. Such gestures contribute nothing to the peace process and are counterproductive because they reinforce the tragic mistake the Palestinian leadership has made in always preferring symbolism over substance, “to seek a flag rather than build a society”.
Ross, who has devoted much of a passionate and brilliant life to the pursuit of a two-state solution, also says there is simply no such solution immediately available right now, so Israel could not possibly immediately withdraw from the West Bank.
He also puts the problem of Israeli settlements in the West Bank in some perspective. The main settlement blocs, he says, occupy about 4 per cent of the West Bank and house almost 80 per cent of settlers. He is critical of the Netanyahu government and wants it to restrict any construction activity to within those blocs. Every peace negotiation has recognised that those blocs will remain part of Israel and Israel will give up equivalent territory to make up for them.
Ross has no problem criticising Israel and asking it to make compromises and sacrifices, but he also thinks the international community must make some demands of the Palestinian leadership, such as stopping payments to terrorists who kill Israeli civilians.
At the time of the Oslo Accords, and as late as 2000, the overwhelming Israeli sentiment was in favour of an immediate and generous two-state solution. As Bill Clinton has recounted, the Palestinian leadership walked away from these offers. Since then, the history of Palestinian terrorism, and especially the missile attacks on Israel launched from the Gaza Strip, from which Israel withdrew unilaterally, and the internal bloodletting among Palestinian factions there, has convinced all parts of Israeli politics that no such solution is available right now.
Nonetheless the Netanyahu government, and Israeli public opinion, still favour a two-state solution when that becomes possible. Netanyahu has many times reaffirmed this publicly, including in an interview with me a couple of months ago, in which he also said: “The settlement issue is a problem to be resolved, but it is not the problem.”
Ross also tells me one of the main obstacles to peace is that the Palestinian leadership has never accepted the legitimacy of a Jewish national movement, which is why it won’t recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
Both Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong have criticised the inflammatory language around the NSW resolution, which plainly encourages rejectionism.
So much of the propaganda around this resolution is wrong. Former Israeli leaders do not describe Israel as an apartheid society. Some have warned that if Israel permanently annexed the West Bank and had a permanent Palestinian population whose national aspirations it denied in principle, and who would never have equal rights, that could lead to an apartheid-style future.
This resolution is jejune, irresponsible, and destructive in any effect it might have. It embarrasses the party and Labor’s leadership. That the NSW right could associate itself with such an effort speaks eloquently to its appalling decline.